x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Let's hope short Pakistan's tour of India is sweet

Easing into a limited-overs series makes sense to India and Pakistan given that this is their first in five years.

India's tour of Pakistan in 2004 sparked off a run of bilateral exchanges between the two teams that ended three years later. Aamir Qureshi / AFP
India's tour of Pakistan in 2004 sparked off a run of bilateral exchanges between the two teams that ended three years later. Aamir Qureshi / AFP

To think that in the winter of 2007, once Pakistan had completed their last tour of India of any kind, the rivalry was beginning to feel faded and jaded, the kind of staleness only overexposure can bring.

In that period, between the start of 2004 and end of 2007, when the two nations were last trying to be grown-up about their history, their sides played each other in 12 Tests and 27 one-day internationals. Had the IPL happened by then, the number of Twenty20s between the two can only be imagined.

But in the drought that followed since the Mumbai terrorist attacks of 2008, when the sides have played just four ODIs and a single Twenty20, that glut stands forgotten. That acidy heartburn from overdosing on the rivalry was swiftly replaced by the hollow hunger of no rivalry at all.

This has been the pattern since 1952 when they first played; glut and drought, feast and famine, drought and glut, famine and feast.

In that ping-ponging is caught a truth not only about ties between the two countries but also of the way the two nations and people are, flittering either at one end or the other, in thought, behaviour, action or support.

Governments, citizens, cricket administrators, players, fans; nobody is exempt from this and in the vast middle of nuance and rationality and understanding, the land is empty and sad.

Each time there is a resumption, too much emotional capital – stored up over the years of drought – stands invested. That each resumption has usually followed a war, a near-war, or proxy war, makes it a particularly unhealthy investment. This is a fraught rivalry, too fraught for sport.

But the rivalry resumes tomorrow with the first bilateral series between the two countries since 2007, a series comprising two T20 matches and three ODIs.

It is fortunate in a way that this renewal is not a full-blooded one. Pakistan could even be Sri Lanka as far as this quickie tour goes, hurriedly roped in at the last minute to fill in whatever holes the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) calendar presents.

And it feels healthier for this to be the way, for there to be a graded return to, say, a full tour of all three formats. India and Pakistan have never knowingly eased gently into anything other than hatred or love.

Circumstances dictate caution as much as the calculations of either board. The private admission by a senior Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) official that "Pakistan needs this series more", might sound too candid to some but it is a realistic admission (and it is Pakistan that has done the chasing for this series).

They may be better off financially now and for the next couple of years than might be imagined, but not playing India rarely makes long-term economic sense. Their broadcast deal is up for renewal in 2013 and the prospect of an India series (and prospect is all it needs to be) will bump up the value of those rights considerably.

The BCCI will not mind the series because nobody minds making money and especially when they were not expecting to, but they have plenty of other avenues for that. The compulsion to jump in is not as great.

So although there is talk of another series perhaps next August, calendars are too packed right now for it to be of a more comprehensive nature, or even certain. For the moment, Pakistan is ruled out as a venue and given that India are not keen on playing in the UAE, a glut this time is unlikely.

The unavailability of Pakistan geographically and Lahore specifically is, in fact, critical to how ties fare. The city has dutifully played Cupid in every thaw, when it becomes less of a city than a great centrifugal force into which has been sucked whatever nostalgia, unity and warmth there is between the two countries.

To be in Lahore in 2004 (and by many accounts, 1954 and 1978) was to feel surging, foolish hope for the future between the two. Not being a venue for the foreseeable future may, by default, add some much-needed realism to proceedings.

So this may turn out to actually be a satisfyingly brief and limited-overs only tussle, as much of an oxymoron as that sounds. There is not too much at stake (or as little as can be possible between the two sides). Both swiftly move on after this to other, more important tasks (not least Bangladesh's possible visit to Pakistan in January), but leave a number handed to the other: call me soon.

Pakistan probably would have preferred playing the Indians in white rather than blue because India as a limited-overs team are a different proposition altogether, especially at home. So it will not matter so much that India have just lost a Test series to England and are at the bottom end of a vast, swift decline.

It might matter more that India have been in situ, if not primed and playing too well at least playing at all. Pakistan begin cold tomorrow having played no international match since the beginning of October. It has been a strange and empty year for them since the Test triumph over England, unable by their schedule to build upon that.

It has been a quiet one too, thankfully. It is not going to end quietly though.


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